Wednesday, February 24, 2021

COVID Lent

Last Tuesday we had a proper Mardi Gras in my house. My wife made a king cake and we danced around to Professor Longhair and Dr John. My kids donned beads and joined in on the fun. It was just the kind of break that we needed from a crushing daily routine that involves my wife and I having to leave our homes for our jobs while our children's school has yet to re-open. We've spent a year having to work several more hours a week at our reinvented jobs while acting as de facto teacher's aides for our kids. All the usual outlets on the weekend have been closed off to us this whole time.

That's why I even surprised myself by leaning into Lent this year. Loyal readers know I have a complicated relationship to the Roman Catholic faith of my upbringing. Regardless of how I feel about doctrines and institutions, however, a part of my soul still REQUIRES me to take Lent seriously. This year I decided to give up alcohol (my idea) and yelling at my kids (their idea.) I tried helplessly to explain to them that giving up the former will make giving up the latter much harder.

It feels strange to lean into Lent because we have been living in Lent since last March. So much has been given up and sacrificed. The clarity that comes with Lenten sacrifice has been bestowed on me in abundance this past year. I have received many a lesson in what matters and what does not matter in this life. I have spent months preparing for a new Easter where I can slough off the hairshirt and live the more fulfilled, purposeful life I know I am ready to have once the burdens of COVID have ceased. That end is in sight. This Saturday I am getting my second shot of vaccine. The transmission rates are trending down. Spring is coming.

So why all the Lenten sacrifice? Because all of what I have learned about what matters has ultimately taught me that the more distractions I eliminate, the better off I will be. I can't control the pandemic, the political situation, my children's school's policies, my employer's demands, or much else. Alcohol is an easy way to put a wall between myself and reality. It has been a very helpful wall in my adult life, especially in the last four years. Now it's time to stop building walls, to face the world straight, and yes, sober. 

I am preparing my soul for the life beyond pandemic, and pushing myself to fulfill the promises I have made to myself. As the past year has painfully illustrated, there's only so much life to go around.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Death of a Clown


Rush Limbaugh was one of the most influential media figures of my lifetime, if not the most influential of all. This failed sports broadcaster became the central figure of both the Republican Party and conservative movement, the one person that the libertarians, Bible thumpers, militia nuts, and rank and file right wingers could agree on. He united this broad coalition through their common hatred of "the liberals."

Limbaugh always pronounced that phrase with such dripping contempt. I remember when he had a late night TV show in my youth, and the ad consisted of stereotypical liberals acting offended at what Rush said. Well before social media was a glint in Mark Zuckerberg's dead eyes"triggering the libs" was the conservative staff of life. 

Sometimes out of morbid curiosity I would watch that TV show, and was struck by just how scared and resentful his audience seemed to be when it came to the most milquetoast liberals. Early in the Clinton presidency he would come in and out of commercials with a "America held hostage" graphic. Well before January 6th, 2021, he had propagated the notion that any Democratic presidency was de facto illegitimate. 

What unnerved me was how people in my life who were devout Catholics and extremely kind in their personal lives and careful not to say negative things of others embraced Limbaugh so much. One aunt of mine who I never heard say a disparaging word to others would listen to him and parrot his arguments. She was a clerk and her husband a small farmer and yet followed the corporatist Limbaugh line. Family friends who sponsored my church youth group had his books displayed prominently. I would flip through them sometimes, taken aback by the rank misogyny and cruelty masquerading as humor.

Nowadays, I understand the connection. The same kind of people also voted for Trump, another showman with a big mouth full of hateful words completely unburdened by shame. I have come to realize that conservatives who are kind upstanding people in their personal lives long for a champion who can express all the contents of their id. Limbaugh and Trump both gave them that. 

Limbaugh was Trump's John the Baptist. (The awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom was a real game recognize game moment.) Limbaugh made it clear that Republicans were far more animated by the culture war than they were about actual tangible political goals. As long as the people they didn't like got hurt worse than them they didn't really care all that much about a whole lot else. For decades the respectable conservative movement thought of itself as being animated by higher principles and ideas, but in reality that was only for the occasional Frum and Kristol type. Trump knew that in 2016 and came in like wrecking ball, forcing the likes of Ted Cruz to drop their high-minded schtick and get down into the muck. 

Limbaugh also knew that Republicans would get far more support from obstructing Democrats than doing anything themselves. His infamous speech at CPAC in 2009 rallied conservatives chastened by their huge defeat in the 200 election. His call for them to derail the Obama administration was heard, and by 2010 the Tea Party would sweep Republicans back into power. 

At the end of the day, however, Limbaugh was primarily in it for himself. There was no animating ideology behind him apart from making a buck. His CPAC speech reasserted his relevance at a time when he faced more competition from other conservative talkers trying to win his crown. He made his bucks appealing to the cultural resentments of his ditto heads, and that only occasionally steered him wrong. (I remember his disastrous stint as a NFL studio commentator when he said Donovan McNabb was getting praised as a quarterback because he was Black. That basically killed ESPN's dumbass experiment.) 

What's striking is that this carnival barker dishing out racial resentment, misogyny, and homophobia to his eager audience ended up being so important. It's another sign of our failed media, failed politics, and failed society. Limbaugh was a smart enough showman to give the people exactly what they wanted. In the process he turned the right wing's dark id into the Republican Party's mainstream. I guess the clown gets the last laugh. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

A New Birth of Freedom or Bust

George Michael reinvented freedom, so we can too!

As expected, the Senate did not convict Donald Trump despite the votes to convict from members of his own party. The Republican Party has become an anti-democratic, extremist movement with Trump as its demagogic head and there was no way that his peons would turn on him. In any case, they mostly agree with him anyway. 

What might get lost in all of this is that a majority of Americans wanted conviction, and the Senators who voted to acquit represent over 70 million people less than those who voted to convict. Our Byzantine Senate and the Constitution's inadequate limits on executive power tell the tale. As in so many things, the will of the people is thwarted by an arrangement that gives an entrenched minority outsized power.

We see this in states that nullified Medicaid extension and in the Supreme Court's decisions on voting rights. We see it most acutely in the Senate, where Wyoming and California get the same representation and the filibuster prevents any legislation that Mitch McConnell doesn't like. 

Furthermore, the Republican Party in its current iteration is explicitly anti-democratic. That includes refusing to honor long standing norms. In the most egregious case, Mitch McConnell refused Merrick Garland's nomination to proceed, but rammed Amy Coney Barrett's through a week before the election. 

Meanwhile inequality worsens, the climate crises worsens, and discontent rises with a system where police can murder with impunity and a president can try to overthrow the government without consequence. Solutions to any of these problems are impossible with all of the democratic choke points being held so savagely by McConnell and other Republicans.

What this country needs, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, is a "new birth of freedom." Just as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments radically broadened the bounds of American democracy after the Civil War, we need to redefine freedom. This should include not only negative freedom from things, but positive freedom to achieve things. Education, health care, housing, and other essentials ought to be guaranteed to all Americans in order to allow them a true pursuit of happiness. 

None of that is possible in the current system, and as long as the Republican Party maintains its choke points, never will be, no matter how many people want change.

The most basic, most elementary thing that could be done to enable the necessary change that the majority thirsts for is the death of the filibuster. That only takes a single vote. After that can come a new Voting Rights Act, statehood for DC and territories that want it, and court packing. The only solution is more democracy, and if Democrats like Sinema and Manchin don't see that, then we can expect absolutely nothing to change. It is flabbergasting to me that devotion to bad, arcane Senate rules will likely end up trumping the drastic need to repair this rapidly dying society. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

A Taste of the Rage

Today I was suddenly overcome by a burst of burning rage inside me. It was sparked by the shamelessness of Trump's defense in the impeachment hearings, but it was not a new feeling.

It struck me that this is how I felt every single day for over four years. (The feeling began before November, 2016). Every single day I looked out at the world, at my government and my fellow citizens (including people very close to me) and just burned on the inside. This week I looked at the photos I took a year ago, right on the eve of COVID. I saw a selfie and it stopped me in my tracks. I must have aged five years in the last 11 months alone. 

It's hard to walk around every day with the thought that people you love are complicit in fascism. It's hard to experience mass death met by government neglect. People here in Jersey were dying in droves back in the spring and much of the rest of the country didn't seem to care because they held us in contempt. It's hard to watch families broken apart, refugees having their hopes destroyed, good people deported, and democracy itself under attack.

On inauguration day my rage was released and I broke down and had an ugly cry. Years of fear and tension were leaving my body. Things are still bad, people are still dying, and the fascists are still out there, but at least I don't feel like there's a psychopath with the ability to destroy lives and upend the world while firing off tweets on the shitter. 

The constant feeling that some horrible thing could come and sweep in at any moment and that so many in this country supported it kept the fire inside me burning. Getting a taste of that again today I do not know how I managed to survive it for four long years. We have been so keen to put the past behind us and forget about it. That's natural after trauma. Despite the pain of memory, I refuse to forget. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

Captain Beefheart, "Zig-Zag Wanderer"

It's been a bear of a week. It seems like a lot of people are hitting some kind of invisible COVID wall where their reserves of resilience have suddenly run dry, myself included. It's normal in even the best of times to be dragged down by the doldrums of February, by far the most miserable time of the year. Throw in a pandemic and then having to dig out from a blizzard and it's all suddenly unbearable.

Tonight we ordered take out and then passed out on the couch twenty minutes into the movie we were watching. I woke up restless and have been blasting what I call weird freakout music to process my emotions. Nothing works in this regard better than early Captain Beefheart.

Coming from his first album, "Zig-Zag Wanderer" is the blues reflected in the haze of a hippie hash pipe. The rhythm is a wicked, off-kilter groove made for jumping around the room like a maniac. The low fuzzy bass meshes perfectly with Beefheart's Mississippi Delta on Mars yowl. It's the best bad trip you'll ever take. 

Back in 1967 plenty of bands in San Francisco were singing about peace and brotherhood. Beefheart knew the real score. Their music wasn't the "be in" but the napalm strike and clouds of tear gas. That side of the sixties seems more relevant than ever these days. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Republican Party Doubles Down on the Trump Movement

We now take you live to Mar-a-Lago...

As I said in a recent post, the Republican Party has ceased to be a broad-based political party in the American tradition, and has become The Trump Movement. The party narrative now resembles that of France's National Front, which could be termed The LePen Movement (hence Marine taking the reins.) 

There's another historical comparison I could make but I don't want to distract ourselves too much.

After 1/6 the GOP was faced with a decision. It could either continue to be The Trump Movement, or it could take the golden opportunity to jettison the demagogue and rebuild. For a moment there it looked like even Mitch McConnell was onboard, but then reversed course when he suddenly realized that the rest of his party was not. This week Kevin McCarthy, their House minority leader, made the trek to the Mar-a-Lago government in exile to collaborate.

So we are left with a situation where a president can try to overthrow the government and invalidate an election and once out of office will face no consequences. Congress members who supported this action, including AFTER the Capitol was assaulted, still hold their seats. I used to wonder why Hitler only spent a couple of years in jail after the Beer Hall Putsch, then later realized it was a reflection of the weakness of Weimar democracy. In that context and present-day America most reactionaries will not accept democracy if it means having to let other people into power. Those who defend democracy are so weak that they are not able to call those trying to to kill it into account.

I should also take a minute to clarify what I mean by The Trump Movement. I mean a politics that promises that the strong man will revive the humiliated nation, smite the internal enemies, expel immigrants, punish Black people, and restore white cishetero Christian supremacy. At its core this is fascism. A lot of his supporters on the far Right seem to understand that. Plenty of other Republicans might be motivated by low taxes and abortion, but they still share the same white nationalist assumptions, even if just subconsciously.

This doubling-down represents the culmination of decades of history. This summer I read Julian Zelizer's most recent book about Newt Gingrich's rise to power in the late 1980s before his ultimate victory in the 1994 election. He learned that shameless, scorched earth tactics worked, and that the most efficient way to get support in the Republican Party was by demonizing Democrats. Back in the 90s plenty of Republican voters bought into things like the New World Order conspiracy, but national Republican politicians would never give them credence. (Although Pat Robertson would.) Today they have caught up with their base. 

Whack-job true believers like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Green just openly spew the conspiratorial litany, but Ivy League sociopaths like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have jumped in, understanding that the way to get power in the GOP is to indulge the fever swamps. 1/6 was not the end, it was the beginning. A democracy where one major party wants to destroy democracy to get its way won't survive very long. Instead of thinking they can go home and rest, those who resisted the Trump administration need to stay active and focused. The Trump presidency is over, but the Trump Movement still lives on.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Staples Singers, "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall"

Sometime around the beginning of the pandemic I listened to Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" with new ears, and I could not stop playing the song. I used to think of it as a prophecy of doom for a broken and unjust society, but it's also a statement of defiance in the face of lies. It summed up so much of what I was feeling. 

Here in New Jersey, in the epicenter of the first wave, people were dying in fearsome numbers while the president was saying it was no big deal and it'd all be over by Easter. Political conservatives I knew back home expressed zero shock or alarm about me living in the worst hit area, since doing so would have forced them to acknowledge that this was a problem. As a middle class white guy it gave me a new feeling all too familiar to others: my country had abandoned me. 

Dylan's song is about exposing the reality so many refuse to see. The "damp dirty prison" the "branch with blood that kept dripping," the "pellets of poison." He proclaims at the end that he is going to speak the terrible truth others refuse to see from the mountaintops until he sinks into the ocean. I would listen to this song and sing along, drawing strength from its declarations.

My obsession drew me to covers. The first was Bryan Ferry's great up-tempo version, which I am sure inspired Dylan's similarly amped take during the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975. Even better is the 1968 cover by the Staples Singers. 

They add gospel overtones, giving the song a call and response structure that increases its emotional potency. Dylan's angry young man screed is a transformed into a church sermon. There's a great interplay of voices on the leads with the young Mavis, her voice so cutting, and older Pops, his voice wrapped in its usual warmth. The strong, repetitive beat makes the responses a sort of mantra. It best matches how I have listened to this song this year: as a prayer. 

Almost a year later it's a prayer I still feel compelled to give. The hard rain keeps falling, with another 4,000 gone every day and a fascist insurrection to boot. Here's hoping I won't feel compelled to pray it a year from now.